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Frontline Diary

2 July 2004: Stories of horror – in a child’s picture

© UNICEF/HQ04-0311/Nesbitt
Jamal, 13, holds up drawings at Kalma camp, South Darfur
At least half a million children have been forced to flee their homes in Darfur – and many of them have been direct victims of horrific violence, or have witnessed it.

UNICEF Communication Officer James Elder reports that some of the strongest testimony is etched in drawings made by children in support centres that UNICEF has opened throughout Darfur. At the centres, children are encouraged to draw and talk about their experiences as a way of relieving their trauma.

DARFUR, 2 July 2004 – Asma’s drawings changed dramatically when she was given a red pencil. Flowers blossomed, the sun emerged… and bodies spilled blood. Using drawings to recall – and recover from – the deadly attack on her village in Darfur, 11-year-old Asma sketches an armed man on a camel, shooting into a crowd.

The victims aren’t imaginary. Asma points to them one by one: First her father, then her older brother, then her aunt. All dead. All killed when, four months ago, armed militia attacked her farming family. It is a scene repeated with terrifying regularity across an area the size of France. 

“First I heard the helicopters and then the screams,” says Asma, hands fidgeting with her new UNICEF pencils. “It was early in the morning and my father was in the fields and I ran to him. Grass huts were burning and then the men came on camels. They were shooting at people and people were screaming. I saw my father run out of the field, but before he got to me he was shot. My mother found me and we ran and hid in a big storeroom where we kept food for the animals. I remember she kept telling me to be quiet, but I kept screaming for my father.”

In raids of devastating brutality, hundreds of farming villages have been burned, thousands killed, accusations of the systematic rape of women are widespread, crops and livestock have been looted or destroyed, and food reserves destroyed.

“We stayed in the food store for almost a day,” continues Asma, “until we were sure we could leave. When we went outside we found my brother… he was dead. My aunt had burns, but was alive. We tried to go to the mountains, but my aunt died on the way. We walked for two days, without water, before arriving in Nyala [the capital of South Darfur]. A month later we were brought here to Kalma displaced people’s camp. In my village we had animals and crops and trees. Here we have nothing. And I miss my father.”

For an 11-year-old recounting the death of three family members, Asma is remarkably calm. She is speaking into her hands, but her voice is strong. This, her teacher will later tell me, is one of the positive results of her school and drawing classes set up by UNICEF. “Like all the children, when Asma first came to me she was very nervous, very withdrawn,” says Nagla Zakaria, her teacher, who UNICEF trained in psychosocial support. “Through drawing she is beginning to express her feelings, and importantly, to see that other children had similar experiences. We have a long way to go, but Asma is becoming confident and social again.”

© UNICEF/HQ04-0309/Nesbitt
Child’s notebook at Kalma camp, South Darfur

Asma is one of thousands of conflict-affected children in Darfur now coming to terms with their horrendous experiences through UNICEF’s psychosocial support centres, where drawing, sport, storytelling, and theatre are helping children to express their feelings and boost self-esteem.

“These activities facilitate safe environments where children can play, socialize and begin to get a sense of normalcy,” said UNICEF Sudan interim Representative, Cecilio Adorna. “Children in Darfur have suffered horribly, and they continue to, but these centres aim to ensure that when the guns finally fall silent, the sounds of conflict do not continue to harm children.”

In the past year, 1.2 million people – half of them children – have been violently uprooted from their homes in Darfur. Until February this year, humanitarian access was greatly restricted. The conflict has since mushroomed into what the United Nations calls “today’s worst humanitarian disaster.”

UNICEF maintains that a child must not only be quickly brought to good physical health, but that their psychosocial well-being must also be attended to. Hence scores of classrooms and psychosocial centres have been built across Darfur in the past weeks.

Sixteen-year-old Noreldin is another beneficiary of the centres; he is another whose life was recently ransacked. Noreldin was sleeping when his village was attacked. His father was praying in the mosque, his mother was making milk, and his brother was preparing to go to the fields. He would never make it. “When the men came on the camels many people tried to escape,” Noreldin tells me, as he continues to draw. “But there was so much confusion. Houses were on fire, people were being shot. They shot my brother. He was my best friend. He is dead.”

Noreldin and his surviving family members fled to Mersching camp for displaced people, about 40 kilometres away. They stayed there for three days, but a critical lack of water and shelter meant they had to return to their village. “What else could we do?” says Noreldin. “This was our home.” Two days later the militia returned. The remaining huts were burnt, the few surviving goats and cows were shot, and the fruit trees were cut down and fed to the militia’s camels.

Alongside Noreldin’s drawings of death and destruction are sketches of rich farming fields, flowers and fine mosques. “My village had everything. The soil was good, we had some cash crops and many cows,” he says, as we walk to his new home in the camp. Amid thousands of tiny grass shacks, ill-prepared to handle rain, Noreldin beds down beside his father, mother, aunt and two cousins. “I am so happy I have school to go to each day,” he says. “I have friends there now and we have a football. I still want to be a farmer, but my teacher says I am a good drawer. I never had notebooks or pencils before and although these memories are not easy, drawing helps me feel better and talk to other students. This is by far the best time of my day.”



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